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Field Notes: Monk Piano Semi-Finals

Sept. 11, 2011; Baird Auditorium, The National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.

Emmet Cohen
Jimmy Heath and Aretha Franklin at the 2011 Monk piano competition semi-finals
Joshua White with the competition rhythm section: Rodney Whitaker (bass) and Carl Allen (drums)
Jason Moran, Danilo Pérez, Ellis Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Renee Rosnes
The judges' panel, clockwise from top left: Jason Moran, Danilo Pérez, Ellis Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Renee Rosnes
Kris Bowers

There are many jobs I wouldn’t want to do, and being a judge at yesterday’s Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition is one of them. “Everyone’s a winner” is generally a useless adage, but not here: A good amount of sheer personal taste would had to have made its way into the judging, since so many of the 12 semi-finalists, all of them men, offered something you’d want to hear on record. The three players chosen as finalists, who will compete for scholarship money and a deal with Concord Records tonight at the Monk Institute’s 25th anniversary gala in Washington, D.C., projected aesthetic focus and maturity. As usual, the Monk contest sought to separate the fiercely talented adolescents from the fiercely talented adults. Again per usual, that duty went to an unimpeachable judging panel, this year comprising Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Renee Rosnes, Jason Moran and Danilo Pérez. (If that lineup wasn’t intimidating enough, competitors could take solace in the fact that Aretha Franklin, a scheduled honoree for tonight’s gala, was in the house.)

For the young competitors, demonstrating wisdom often meant simply playing less. Virtuosity overtook early performances by the Israeli Hod Moshonov, who hammered out grooving motifs with paper on the piano strings, worked into a bombastic solo recital and even beat-boxed, and Kansas City’s Harold O’Neal, who applied Oscar Peterson elbow grease to Monk’s “Evidence” and followed that with a cascading, tremolo-happy original. When Miami native Emmet Cohen, later chosen as a finalist, allowed Monk’s “Bright Mississippi” to breathe, it seemed like a revelation. The same could be said for Los Angeleno Kris Bowers’ requisite Monk homage, an appropriately patient version of “Blue Monk” that began downcast and worked toward a shuffling roadhouse apex.

Even if only because it was easier to understand where they were coming from, my personal favorites worked in decades-old styles. There was Virginia Beach’s Justin Kauflin, whose playing evoked another sightless pianist with a historical bent, Marcus Roberts; Florida’s Antonio Madruga, who sounded as if he’s absorbed far more Bill Charlap than Brad Mehldau; and Beka Gochiashvili, a through-and-through bebopper.

There were a lot of original compositions, most of them overly ambitious, and a dearth of selections from recent jazz repertory-so kudos are due Massachusetts’ Glenn Zaleski, who tackled Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “Zhivago.” Doing interesting things with familiar fare seemed to work for the judges, especially in the case of California’s Joshua White, the day’s final performer and the third finalist. Bucking my theory of understatement, White used his considerable technique to forcefully recapitulate “Monk’s Dream,” “Lush Life” and “Nefertiti” until the themes became hidden messages. It was head-scratching stuff but you wanted to hear it again, even after five hours of jazz piano.

Originally Published